There are times in Italy when simple things are not so simple after all. You start out with a clear expectation and find yourself confronted with unexpected surprises.
For example, moving your household goods from one apartment to another apartment just a few blocks away, "as far as the crow flies," ought to be simple. Problem is, you can’t get there from here.
This is particularly true when you live in an Italian hill town that is over 2,100 years old.
In towns (comune) like mine, the streets were designed for Roman foot soldiers, for horses, horse-drawn merchant carts, the occasional chariot for Roman royalty on holiday, and ordinary townspeople walking to the market.
This Road Is Perfect For A Roman Chariot But Not A 21st Century Moving Van
To be sure, the winding, undulating, and often steep streets of old were not designed for today’s giant household moving vans.
Some of the streets here are paved with a type of stone (sampietrini), which are small intricately cut stones that are locked tightly together end-on-end. Other streets utilize cobblestones (ciottolo), extremely hard roundish rocks of comparable size that are secured with mortar.
Though these paving materials are durable, and laid to be to artfully attractive, they also can be noisy, bumpy, and devilishly slippery when wet.
Many of our medieval streets are also exceptionally narrow -- bordering on impassable by mini-car unless you first fold in the side rear view mirrors.
Add to this streets with sharp turns, overhanging second-floor balconies (balcone sporgente), row upon row of potted plants making the street even narrower, and a moving van is out of the question.
A Second Floor Balcony Jutting Out Into The Roadway
Can Make Travel "Difficult" For Moving Vans
I have lived in three different locations within the old Roman and medieval hill town of Spello, in Central Italy.
A View Of Spello, Italy
My First Move
The first move was easy. I had moved from the U.S. carrying a couple of suitcases. It wasn’t raining so there was no worry about slipping on sampietrini or cobblestones.
My first apartment was created out of the basement (fondo) of a three-story building. The apartment space on the ground floor was originally where animals were housed centuries ago. The apartment was dug out of a hillside buttressed by a thick natural stone back wall. It featured an eat-in kitchen, a living room, a bathroom and an elevated small bedroom loft area located above the living room. Just outside the front door is a wonderful view of a beautifully restored 2,000-year old Roman Gate built to protect townspeople from invaders.
The apartment was almost completely furnished. I literally opened the door to the apartment and moved in.
My Second Move
For the second move, I relocated to another apartment also in the old historic center of Spello. The two apartments were close “as far as the crow flies,” but much further by car.
Because I had few things to move, I expected moving day would be fairly easy. I thought it would take only one trip to move everything.
After I met with Franco, the local moving expert, I began to realize that I had underestimated the task.
Franco had been highly recommended to me by some very kind Italian neighbors. They told me that Franco was a specialist with vast experience with moves within historical towns.
I first met with Franco on a cold, cloudy day in November to discuss the move in detail and to get a sense of what it would cost. I was surprised to discover that Franco was likely in his 70s. He had an iron grip and there was no doubt about his physical fitness.
Franco had a remarkably warm sense of humor while speaking in both Italian and the local Umbrian dialect. I understood much of his Italian but the Umbrian dialect was incomprehensible to me.
We went outside and Franco pointed out several challenges that he would have to deal with on moving day.
The first challenge was the narrow street called “Via Mura Vecchie”. The street name means “Old Walls Street” because there actually are two walls: an ancient Roman wall that parallels an old medieval wall.
A View Looking Down The Street With Two Roman Towers
Second, he noted that because of a wicked sharp left turn, followed by an immediate right turn, it would be impossible to drive from one end of the street to the other. He would need to pull up to load and then back up the full 200 feet length of the street. This task would be impossible in a moving van.
A Notorious Turn Which Is Difficult For Cars & Especially Moving Vans!
The Sign Above Says "Only Authorized Vehicles Are Allowed"
Third, while backing down, Franco needed to be very diligent not to hit the religious niche dedicated to the Virgin Mary located about halfway down the street. The niche also jutted out a bit into the street making backing down even harder.
The Religious Niche Which Can Be Quite A Car Scraper If You Are Not Careful
Front View Of The Religious Niche
Dedicated To The Virgin Mary
Fourth, the street does not go in a straight line nor is it all the same width the entire way which makes backing down more challenging.
The View Up The Steep Street
Fifth and most importantly, Franco stated that a large or medium size moving van would not fit on this narrow street. Not even a small van (furgone), would not be an option. All three sizes were simply too big.
At The Top, The Street Narrows
Of Course Our Apartment Is Located At The Very Top Past The Two Cars
As he pointed out each of these issues, he noticed what must have been a look of disappointment and concern on my face. He stopped for a moment, paused, then smiled and finally roared with laughter. He then slapped me on the back and said not to worry, that the move would actually be “molto facile” or “very easy.”
Franco said he would use what is called an “ape” for the move. An ape or “ah-pay” as it is pronounced, is the Italian word for bumble bee. An ape is a small three-wheeled, pickup-like truck. It is unique to Italy and it sounds a bit like the buzzing of a bumble bee when it zips along.
An ape is typically used by farmers or handymen. It is small, remarkably versatile and can pretty well navigate any nook or cranny in a medieval town. For its small size, it is remarkably powerful and can climb nearly every steep hill. Franco said that an ape would be perfect to navigate Spello’s narrow streets and go up the steep hill to my new apartment.
I had seen ape trucks many times but it had never occurred to me to use one this way. Now that Franco had mentioned it, this made a lot of sense.
An Italian Ape Truck Which Is Transformed Into A Moving Van
On moving day, Franco and his trusty, young muscular assistant, arrived in an ape to move my stuff. For each trip, they had to take a long, circuitous, two-mile route to get from the old apartment to the new apartment even though it was a very short walking distance.
For an added twist, after a long day and after having made four trips (not the single trip as I had originally anticipated), the movers elected to carry and walk up with the final load, a long and heavy dining room table, rather than drive the ape. They said that it would be much quicker and easier than driving, even though the walk was up a steep hill.
As Franco and his assistant walked up the hill, I locked the door to my old place for the last time while wistfully saying goodbye to the Roman gate which I had walked by countless times. I wondered how many people over the centuries had walked these same streets and enjoyed the magnificent view.
I was excited to move to a new place but at the same time, I felt a tinge of melancholy. I was looking at a Roman gate built over 2,000 years ago. In my old U.S. neighborhood, a building was “old” if it was 175 years old. This gate was more than 10 times older and that was hard to fathom. After bidding farewell to the familiar view, I eagerly walked uphill to the new apartment where I ultimately lived for nine years.
My Third Move
After deciding to relocate to Italy, it was time to find a bigger apartment and move a third time.
The main thoroughfare to this apartment was only slightly wider than the width of a small car in several places. There was also a tight left-hand turn to navigate and the walls showed it. I thought to myself that another adventure awaits.
A Nasty Left Turn – With Car Scape Marks To Prove It
Franco had done such a great job with the last move, I called him right away, hopeful that after all of these years he was still in business. Franco was pleased to hear from me and told me that he was in the process of winding down his moving business so he could retire. However, for a friend he said, he was willing to handle one last move.
He told me that this time he would enlist his nephew, Marco to assist. Marco owned a truck that Franco thought would work a bit better than an ape for this move. I was delighted that they would be able to help.
On another cold but sunny day in late January, Franco and Marco arrived to start the move. His first stop was to talk with the police to advise them that he was conducting a move. Franco would be blocking various streets in town for short periods of time. He knew that this would help him avoid getting into trouble if locals complained when he blocked local traffic.
When I first saw Marco’s truck, for some reason it reminded me of a used 1970s Chevrolet El Camino that a college classmate used to own. However, this truck was a bit smaller and much narrower. To move in Spello, I had learned, bigger is not better.
Marco & Franco Loading Up The Truck
Franco, Marco and Marco’s truck made numerous trips from the old apartment to the new apartment. Prior to starting the first trip, Franco asked me to walk behind the truck to ensure that nothing fell off.
The first trip and subsequent trips were slow going since Marco drove only about 5 miles per hour along the long, curvy and winding road.
A Particularly Narrow Spot
As I followed the truck and trudged down the hill over rocks smoothed from wear over the years and maybe centuries, I thought about what it must have been like for Roman soldiers to have walked down this same hill town street. I marveled at the beautiful view of the Italian countryside and the ancient fortified tower next to the street.